The war in Yemen has killed as many as 57,000 people since March 2015, left 8.4 million people surviving on food aid and created a cholera epidemic. The British government claims to have been at the forefront of international humanitarian assistance, giving more than £570m to Yemen in bilateral aid since the war began.
Yet the financial value of aid is a drop in the ocean compared with the value of weapons sold to the Saudi-led coalition – licences worth at least £4.7bn of arms exports to Saudi Arabia and £860m to its coalition partners since the start of the war.
Britain and the US have been the key supporters of the Saudi-led coalition, providing arms, intelligence, logistics, military training and diplomatic cover. This has provoked criticism: in the US, a Democrat congressional resolution invoked the 1973 War Powers Act to end US involvement in the war in Yemen, but was blocked by a Republican procedural rule change to a resolution about … wolves. More recently, an attempt to push through a UN resolution calling for a ceasefire was stalled by the US and other countries, reportedly after a lobbying campaign by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
In the UK, parliament’s committees on arms export controls (CAEC) fell into disarray in 2016, unable to agree on whether or not to recommend a suspension of arms exports to Saudi Arabia pending an international investigation into alleged war crimes.
Britain’s own rules state that it cannot sell weapons to countries where there is a clear risk they might be used to violate international humanitarian law. The government has been forced to expend greater energy in justifying its position and devote more resources to the aid response – even if it will not rein in arms sales, the key aspect of UK complicity, as admitted by the former defence attache to Riyadh last month.
The UK government claims to have one of the most rigorous arms control regimes in the world, yet evidence of attacks on medical facilities and schoolchildren in Yemen is clear. How does the British government manage to convince itself that its arms export policy is not in tatters?
First, by batting away extensive evidence of violations of international humanitarian law, claiming it can’t be sure they have happened – despite a risk-based framework that is explicitly preventive in orientation.
Second, by working with the Saudis to claim that, if attacks on civilians have happened, they must have been a mistake.
Third, that any past misuse of weapons doesn’t necessarily mean future misuse. According to the British government, while there may be a risk of weapons being misused in Yemen, that risk is not clear.